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Seeds of discontent: can architecture be revolutionary?

Reflecting on historical interactions between architecture, culture and politics, Jeremy Melvin asks whether architecture can ever be revolutionary 

Von boullee bis le corbusier

Von boullee bis le corbusier

Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine inscribed in Boullée’s Newton Cenotaph. Image by Romeo d’Orazio

In 1952 the architectural historian Emil Kaufmann published a famous paper in which he described Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeu as revolutionary. Decades later the educationalist Richard Patterson pinpointed Kaufmann’s justification for that label. Through their repositioning of architecture, ‘the formal characteristics of a building’, Patterson writes, were no longer ‘intended to sustain multiple meanings of metaphorical or allegorical allusions, but to articulate a more explicit univocal narrative’. It is, he continues, an example of what Giambattista Vico identified in New Science: that metaphor was giving way to metonym, replacing the possibility of variegated if diffuse layers of meaning, to representing something by depicting or referring to one or occasionally more of its immediate visual attributes.

Switching from one figure of speech to another may hardly seem the stuff of revolution, especially as all three of this trio lived in France through the turbulent 1790s, the ‘dawn’ in which Wordsworth thought it was ‘bliss to be alive’. Ledoux, at least, had been seriously implicated in giving architectural form to the excesses of the Ancien Régime with his celebrated Saltworks and Parisian barrières. However it is precisely this contrast of scale and scope – or coincidence in time – that holds interest here, because it implies the relationship between architecture and revolution is placeable anywhere on the spectrum from a subtle, almost Jesuitical intellectual position that can retrospectively be defined quite tightly, to a vast conflagration of social energy whose causes, consequences and corollaries can never be traced in their entirety. 

The point here is not to unpick the extraordinarily complicated and ultimately tenuous connections between ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary architecture’ in the 1790s. They are, at best, distorting mirrors of each other – it would be a serious historiographical challenge beyond the scope of this essay to explore how those distortions throw light on each other. Instead I want to use this duality as a frame to consider other ways in which architecture and revolution can interact and the implications that follow.

To start: the shift from metaphor to metonym. The architectural movement most closely associated with this change is Neoclassicism, which itself reflected a view that architecture had travelled too far from its roots in nature, and that these roots could be recovered through reason. It was to some extent a reaction against the subtleties of the Baroque, a hybrid and ultimately quite flexible architectural ‘style’ that emerged through the Counter-Reformation, and that depended on the accretions of human civilisation as opposed to forms derived directly from nature. Baroque’s first purpose was to reassert Papal power but when that proved impossible it demonstrated remarkable capabilities to express new theological niceties (Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane).

From that it segued into support for secular authorities, both absolutist and oligarchical. In Britain, Wren and Hawksmoor adapted Classical architecture to give expression to the evolving Church of England, an analogy despite the clear theological differences with the Roman Baroque masters Borromini and Bernini in conveying Counter-Reformed Catholic belief. Vanbrugh’s masterpieces of Castle Howard and Blenheim demonstrate the power of England’s emerging Whig elite.

What is common to all of these – as well as Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, and Vierzehnheiligen could be thrown in too – is the multiplicity of meaning, of mode of representation and richness of allusion in each of them. The idea that Louis XIV was Jupiter is itself a metaphor brought to life and given credibility, if not legitimacy, in art, architecture and literature. 

Absolute monarchy, oligarchical rule and Christian theology all have complex evolutions, contested legitimacy and unverifiable justifications. Any sense of their coherence can only come from illusion, and illusion works best when it never settles on one view or idea but, instead, continually offers new visions to prevent a sceptic from settling long enough on one to doubt it. That, in essence, is what underpinned the Baroque interest in, and exploitation of, the concept of metaphor: nothing need be addressed except through a veil, a beautiful, multi-layered, billowing and seductive veil, but a veil nonetheless, and all sorts of impressions could be derived from such a conception.

No wonder then that criticism and ultimately rejection of Baroque architecture coincided with the questioning of established ‘authorities’. Reason, as a tool to investigate and understand nature, seemed a far more effective way of establishing authentic authority than cherubs, castrati and incense. Truth was best told with as little mediation as possible, in clear images, clear forms and unambiguous texts.

As this thinking started to affect architecture it came with strings attached. Out went the spatial complexities of Borromini’s San Carlo or Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth with their mysterious light sources and imperceptible boundaries; in came architecture of unambiguous forms such as Boullée’s gigantic extrapolations of pure shapes, or Ledoux’s didactic assemblies of volumes each attuned to their own functions. This characteristic is equally present in his design for a brothel in the shape of an erect phallus, or his houses for different types of workers that leave no doubt as to their inhabitants’ occupations. 

Richard Patterson also draws attention to the viscous-like dribble at the Saltworks that looks as close to a saline solution as stone can. This is the heart of the move to metonymy. The forms of the Saltworks speak of their function and little else; what decoration there is presents a literal visual analogue of the substance created there. 



Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Cow shed by Jean-Jacques Lequeu

Lequeu took this even further. One of his best-known designs is for a cow shed – in the literal shape of a cow. Whether or not the ideal way of housing cows is in a giant facsimile of them is irrelevant. What matters is that a single idea is communicated, and no other. In the 19th century it would have been hard to see such a structure and say ‘this is not a cowshed’. It took Magritte to do that a century later (although he used a pipe). Where the Baroque used metaphor to create a rich blend of sensual and intellectual seduction into a belief system, this version of Neoclassical architecture says what it is, tells you who you are and instructs you in what to do. And it brooks no argument. 

The approaches Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeu took to Neoclassical architecture may differ in form and detail but each of them privileges the bold, the literal and superficially apparent meaning. And this did have revolutionary effects on architecture. No longer could architecture be contained, perceived and defined within a particular ideological web, however complex, subtle and satisfying the patterns of its threads may be. Through a strange paradox, the apparent restriction of architectural expression they practised suggested that architecture could develop a different agenda, starting with more direct relationships with its functions and its occupiers. Its ornament need not follow historic precedent but could come from its own inherent conditions and qualities. Here then is their contribution to revolution, not in some direct effect on political events.



Source: Azoor Photo / Alamy

‘The Treachery of Images’ by Magritte

In setting off on a search for architecture’s origins as the source of authority, the Neoclassicists began an endless quest, best described by Tolstoy in the famous passage about different explanations for a train’s motion towards the end of War and Peace. Only the peasant’s view that a devil moves the train is adequate in itself, Tolstoy claims. The rational, enlightened, proto-scientific explanation that the train moves because its wheels turn only leads to an almost infinite chain of causality which, ultimately, converges on the question of ‘what is life?’ 

But another branch sprang from the search for architecture’s origins. Once the link between nature and reason collapsed, function and the nature of materials were obvious candidates for some objective base for architectural expression. In this, Neoclassical architecture switched the whole notion of ‘authority’ from a point of origin, increasingly recognised as mythical, to buildings themselves expressing authority in the way they are used or made. In other words, authority, such as it was, lay in human endeavour and behaviour, not in some divinity or other non-human entity. 

As the 19th century progressed, architecture increasingly became one means of expressing that authority. The didactic nature of buildings, from panopticons for the mad, bad or sad to the intricacies of social housing plans, were literal and often brutal expressions of how their occupants should behave. This is one of several logical continuations of the switch from metaphor to metonym, from illusion to prescription based on clear, unambiguous relationships between form and use, image and meaning. From that, it is a short step to architectural determinism, the view that certain types of architecture lead more or less directly to predictable patterns of behaviour.

Here we re-enter the territory of political revolutions, though again by analogy rather than direct linkage. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels expressed scepticism about the utopian, proto-socialist settlements of Saint-Simon and Robert Owen, calling them ‘small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure …’, partly because they were manifested in architectural terms as ‘isolated phalansteres’, ‘home colonies’ or ‘Little Icaria’.

Cass adam khan architectcs crop

Cass adam khan architectcs crop

‘New Harmony’, 1838, by F Bate showing a community proposed by Robert Owen

For Marx and Engels architectural determinism may not have been enough to generate the socially determined revolution – indeed it may even have held it back for a time – but there is a strange affinity between the beliefs behind deterministic architecture and the Marxian view of revolution. Both assume that human behaviour can be accurately predicted, given certain preconditions – physical in the case of architecture, social and economic in the case of revolution. Both, at least superficially, claim reason as their lodestar. Each of them relies on the direct correlations between form and meaning, idea and outcome that spring from metonymy rather than diffuse allusions of metaphor. And both proved horrifically wrong.

Edmund Burke was one of the first and most perceptive critics of the French Revolution. His descriptions of some of its early events may have been overly lurid, but many of his predictions were horribly accurate – and not just about the French Revolution. His realisation that it would pass through violence to dictatorship has become a horribly familiar pattern.

Two comments stand out in particular: the first is that revolutions tend to ‘give splendour to obscurity and distinction to invisible merit’. This prefigures the fallacies of thinking in ‘systems’ – in this case that a commitment to revolutionary ideas trumps all other measure of merit. The exiled Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski summarised the pitfalls cogently if satirically, in his reply to EP Thompson’s attack on his apparent abandonment of any attempt to apply Marxist thinking. ‘You’, Kolakowski addressed Thompson, ‘say to think in terms of a “system” yields excellent results. I am quite sure it does, not only excellent, but miraculous; it simply solves all the problems of mankind [sic] in one stroke’. The simple formulae of metonymy triumph over the complexities of metaphor as a way of addressing the human predicament.

Screen shot 2017 09 13 at 17.19.49 copy crop

Screen shot 2017 09 13 at 17.19.49 copy crop

Source: Halas and Batchelor

Film still from ‘Animal Farm’, 1954

Burke’s other comment worth considering here is perhaps the most famous from his long political pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France. He stresses the need for continuity and evolution rather than disruption and revolution. ‘Society is indeed a contract’, he wrote, ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.’ No single generation, still less an individual clique, has the right to rewrite that contract without reference to the achievements of the past and obligations to the future. 

What guarantees that continuity are institutions that, for Burke, were captured in monarchy and parliament. Institutions are assembled from living people and traditions, working practices and obligations. Drawing on metaphor can underwrite that continuity, as in the late medieval concept of ‘the king’s two bodies’ – one the living, corporal body and the other the position of state. This concept was always recognised as a fiction, but nonetheless it allowed the continuity of the crown to survive individual royal deaths.

Institutions need to adapt to succeed. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper elegantly displays what happens when they fail in The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. The innovations in statecraft of the Renaissance, he explains, could not address the emerging realities of the 1600s and the result was numerous uprisings, revolts and wars, from the scale of the English Revolution and the Thirty Years War, to small-scale and local unrest. Simple application of conventional formulae – ‘systems’ – does not work without real-time, human input.

Architecture’s relationship to institutions is powerful but complicated. If a partnership between living individuals and traditions is the essence of institutions, it can sometimes be captured and conveyed in architecture, for instance the building they occupy. It follows that new buildings offer architecture the most scope for change that could both be revolutionary in terms of how the institution works, and mitigate the possibility and effect of violent, civil revolution.

‘Architecture or revolution’, Le Corbusier famously – and metonymically – cried in Vers une Architecture. More subtly and metaphorically we may now be able to see where and how architecture can be revolutionary, where architecture is an ongoing device for challenging and reconfiguring the relationships between people, institutions and the spaces and buildings they inhabit.

This article appeared in the After the revolution issue – click here to buy a copy